April 29, 2021
The impetus for this article is a little bit odd and worth recalling, after I mentioned on Facebook how I was dealing with sorting, managing, and archiving family photos, quite a discussion developed. This short article answers many of the questions that were asked there.
Organizing and archiving photos (and other documents for that matter) is a “painful task” for many people. In my family, it is usually my task, and it tends to hit around holiday season. Since we use a wild mix of iOS and Android devices at home, all the photos taken with those devices are usually synced to one Microsoft OneDrive private account, since that is the one that works everywhere. During the holiday season, I usually download all those photos, merge them with the photos taken with “proper” cameras, delete any bad shots and duplicates, rename them in a uniform way, and finally tag those photos with people, places, and situations that I will be unlikely to remember in 20- or 30-years’ time. It takes me about a day to do all that.
Once I am done with that, I copy the cleaned up and sorted photos to my Synology NAS, which has two HDDs in RAID 1, and then I forget all about it. Forget? Well not really, in truth, I don’t have that luxury. While RAID 1 provides data redundancy and protection if there is a failure of one drive, what if both drives fail – or what if there is a breach in the house, and someone steals the NAS, or if there is a fire (our neighbour’s house burned down two years ago, so it can happen!). Everyone who has lost precious family photos before knows how difficult that can be and wants to protect against it.
Luckily, with Synology, there is an app called “Cloud Sync”. For quite some time now, there has been a Microsoft Azure Storage connector within that app. Now, Azure Storage is a very cheap and a very solid backup option. Yes, I am aware that there are other storage options available in Cloud Sync, such as AWS and Rackspace, but I already had an Azure subscription (anyone without one can easily make one with the “pay-per-go” option at no fixed costs), so I prefer to use that. If your preference is to go with any other could storage provider, the procedure is very much the same.
Archiving the photos on Azure fits the backup purpose, and I know that my photos will be automatically stored safe in Azure’s data centre(s). However, with using this system, I always felt there was something missing, namely that I could not browse my photos when I was not on the home network, since Synology does not allow connecting with public networks. Also, Azure Storage is not really meant for browsing photos, it is meant – well, for storage, of course.
Synology Cloud Sync offers syncing with OneDrive (or Dropbox, or whatever) too, but the problem with that option is that those accounts are always “person-bound”, and using shared accounts is very often a tricky thing to do.
Fortunately, Synology has recently added SharePoint to the list of supported connectors for Cloud Sync.
SharePoint? Sounds lame? Then let’s say Teams! It suddenly sounds much better, even if we are talking about the same thing 😊 but the idea that I could just take my phone, open my Teams app, and quickly browse my photo library was… well, fascinating, and it needed to be done! 😊 Because Teams are cool, Teams are everywhere, and – don’t judge us – we are even using it within our family for communication and sharing.
So, it had to be Teams! This article provides the complete configuration step by step. It takes less than 10 minutes.
There are two important things to mention though before we start. First of all, this is not the ultimate answer to family photo backup and management (or for any other files) – because, in truth, there is no ultimate answer. This is just one of the many possible ways; one which has proved to be very effective and easy to grasp for our family.
Second, a prerequisite for this article is that you must be using a Synology NAS device and its Cloud Sync app. This should not be a major hurdle as Synology has now moved from the “geek scene” to “mainstream”, and it is a well–known and supported NAS and backup system that can be found in many homes and small businesses. My knowledge of other NAS devices is not adequate enough to know if they have similar tooling: if they do, and they probably do, that’s great. But this article will be focused on Synology.
Also, if you don’t want to use Azure and Microsoft Teams, but rather want to use another archiving and storage/browsing platform, feel free. The procedure will be pretty much the same.
Archiving your photos (and documents) to Azure Storage
Within your Microsoft Azure subscription (if you do not already have one, it is very simple to create a pay as you go subscription with no upfront costs), you can easily create a storage account, and can then store your files in the “Archive” tier. This is a very cost-effective way to store a large number of files, as long as you don’t need to access them regularly – and you shouldn’t need to. Remember, we are talking about archiving here.
When you are creating the storage account for archiving, it is important to choose the appropriate options, ones which will not unnecessarily increase costs. For example, I chose here to use only “Locally-redundant storage” (which means, the files are redundant within a local data centre, and not replicated to other data centres). This is sufficient for most general-purpose storage.
Second, I chose the “cool” over “hot” access tier as the default storage option. Azure recognizes three access tiers: “hot” (the most expensive storage, but the cheapest handling), “cool” (less expensive storage, handling gets more expensive) and “archive” (the least expensive storage, the most expensive handling). The main differences are related to usage type and the time needed to access your stored files: if you want to restore your files from the “archive” tier, it can even take a few hours. For this purpose, that is sufficient – we want to archive, and we hope we won’t ever need to access them again. But you will notice that you cannot chose “archive” here: that is because that tier is not available on the storage account level, it is available only on the individual file (blob) level. We will deal with that later. For now, I chose the “cool” tier.
Once that is done, we need to create a new container within that storage account…
…and then to copy the storage account name and Access/API key, which we will need later to give privileges to Synology NAS to access that data.
Next, in the Cloud Sync app on your Synology server, make a new connection, and choose “Azure Storage”.
Choose “Azure Global“ as the data centre (not China or Germany), and enter your storage account name and key, which you copied in the prevoius step. Once you have entered those two values, you will be able to select your blob container name from the drop–down menu:
In the task settings, give a meaningful name to this connection, choose the folder on Synology that you want to back up (/photo in my case), and if you want, choose a subfolder within your blob container.
An important thing to watch out for here is to make sure you choose one way sync (“Upload local changes only”), because we are just archiving the files; also, the two-ways sync does not make any sense within the “archive” tier of your Azure Storage account.
If you want, you can also set up the sync schedule – I prefer to sync the files overnight.
Now, after the first run (or, immediately, if you have not set up the schedule), you will see them landing in your storage account container. But all of them will be using the “cool” access tier because that is what we set up on the storage account level.
If you want to push the files to the “archive” tier, you need to select them one by one, and then change the tier –a very tedious way of doing it. An easier way is to run a PowerShell script, which will push all the files onto the “archive” tier. Just make sure to have the AzureRM PowerShell module installed, and to set the $storageAccountName, $storageAccountKey and $containerName variables to their correct values.
#Uncomment this line to install the AzureRM module
#import the AzureRM module
#set the context variables for connecting to the blob storage container
#create the context
#connect to Azure
#get the blov container user the context created above
#set standard blob tier to archive
Once you have done that, you will notice that all the files have been pushed into the “archive” tier, which is going to additionally reduce your storage costs.
Syncing your Synology photos with Microsoft Teams
With your photos being archived in Azure, you’ll be assured that your photos are safe regardless of what happens to the Synology server, or it’s data. But on the flipside, they are not browsable anymore. And this is what we are going to solve with Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Teams.
Synology Cloud Sync recently introduced the Microsoft SharePoint connector, and since SharePoint is the service behind Teams files, this is how we will configure it, so photos and files will be browsable from the Teams app.
First, create a new connection using SharePoint as the cloud provider.
After you connect to SharePoint, and give the appropriate permissions, the app will ask you to choose a SharePoint site (Teams team!) and document library. If you want to use the SharePoint site independent of the Teams interface, then choose any site and document library that you want. If you want to use the Teams apps, choose the site that is called the same as your Teams team, and choose the “Documents” library under it.
In the documents library, you will see all your Teams channels, represented as folders. Select the folder (channel!) that you want to sync your photos and files into.
Finally, you can choose here either one-directional sync (as we did for Azure), or bidirectional. I chose bidirectional sync, because I want to be able to manage and edit my photos directly from the Teams app, and to ensure that those changes are synced back with my Synology server.
And voila: once your photos are synced, you can easily access them through your Microsoft Teams client, on desktop and on mobile.
While this is all very cool, inviting, and simple to set up, don’t fall in the trap of “overdoing” it. You can for example, sync the Teams channel with photos on your computer by using OneDrive sync, but that would mean syncing the same data with three different services (Synology – SharePoint – Local Folders), which you generally would never want to do. Consider Microsoft Teams just as an app for browsing and displaying the photos, not really as their storage (Synology and Azure Storage are there for that purpose).
Once you figure out how to do this the best, you can easily “show off” and score some bonus points with your family: have your photos securely archived in two different places, and yet ready for you to show them whenever you need to.
Furthermore, I was focusing on photos here because this was a straightforward example, and easy to understand. But the same principle can be used with any type of data: important documents, books, etc. However, what you do NOT want to do, is to use the Synology server as a file share for collaboration, and then to sync that to Teams: that is the wrong way of doing it. Teams is the primary collaboration tool, and you can then back up the Teams files to your Synology NAS if you want, but that is a completely different matter, and a subject for another article perhaps.
Collaboration means two-way communication!
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